Thar He Paints! The Artist Wyland Is On A Whale Of A Tour, Taking His Mural Cause To 17 Cities In 17 Weeks. Now The Philadelpdhia Work Is Underway.

Posted: July 15, 1993

NEW LONDON, Conn. — One fine morning this week when the awful heat had lifted and a breeze came in from the sea, a few hundred denizens of this Yankee "Whaling City" gaped at what only the week before had been the ugly brick wall of a discount store selling 99-cent tank tops from sidewalk bins.

Gigantic sperm whales - which New Londoners hunted nearly to extinction in the mid-19th century - had returned and now covered the American Discount Store wall, half-a-block long, in resplendent blue and turquoise acrylic-latex 20-year paint.

No matter that part of the ocean was a door that opened to the discount- store bathrooms. No matter that some critics had derided the artist Wyland, as a circusmeister muralist and creator of giant whale cartoons.

The rock-star-style tour of Wyland - artist, environmentalist, diver, media star - had left its mark on yet another city.

The latest stop on the East Coast tour: Philadelphia.

Wyland's whale tour is, fittingly, epic. He's painting 17 "Whaling Walls" in 17 cities in 17 weeks. Philadelphia is the seventh stop on a tour that began June 1 in Portland, Maine, with a thousand-foot mural on a building on the Maine State Pier, and will end Sept. 27 in Key West, Fla., with a huge mural on the Waterfront Playhouse at Mallory Square.

Wyland arrived Tuesday in Philadelphia to begin painting another very big whale, a humpback that ought to be thankful it's only a mural - coming to life, as it is, this very morning, within sniffing distance of the Schuylkill, miles from the sea.

Wyland started painting the west wall of the Marketplace Design Center, 2400 Market St., on Tuesday. You can watch him today, a man who is afraid of heights, 100 feet up on window-washing scaffolding, obsessed, like Ahab, with his leviathan.

The Philadelphia mural will measure 116 feet by 75 feet, small by Wyland standards. He'll be finished, he says, on Sunday, in time for the dedication on Monday.

Since the tour began, Wyland has been touted in Boston as a "Michelangelo of the deep" and has used anti-graffiti coating in New York's Hell's Kitchen. After Philadelphia, he'll be painting at the Boardwalk Mall in Wildwood from Tuesday to July 25. He'll slap a giant whale on the new convention center in Myrtle Beach, S.C. He's having a special wall built just for his whales outside the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla. And he's fighting to paint a huge wall of the National Aquarium in Baltimore in August.

On Monday, it was his day to dedicate the New London wall.

"This is a great day for New London," gushed city planner Peter Gillespie. "This will help bring people downtown again."

Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker praised the barnstorming Wyland for bringing to life the state's official animal.

Tom Callinan, Connecticut's official state troubadour, sang a song composed for Wyland.

The mayor declared that July 6 to 12 was "Wyland Week" in honor of the artist who had astonished all by painting a family of gargantuan 80-foot whales, dolphins, squid, unidentified green fish and the living ocean in six days, and who kept painting even after heat exhaustion caused his legs to buckle. And on the seventh day he rested and dedicated the "Whaling Wall."

"When they measure your canvases in acres," cracked Wyland, who painted a three-acre whale mural in California, "you know you're big."

Big is the operative word for Wyland. He paints the biggest creatures who ever lived (that's not dinosaurs, Virginia, but whales). He's a bigger deal in Japan and Europe than he is here. He's better known than Michelangelo was in his time, which ain't bad for a working-class son of Detroit who says ''ain't" and paints with an automobile-paint spray-gun.

Everything about Wyland is huge, that is, except Wyland, who stands a shade under six feet, with curly hair and mustache and sea-blue eyes. As he meets the crowd, Wyland looks, at 36, like Tom Selleck's smaller brother. He's wearing a Delta Airlines cap (one of his half-dozen major corporate sponsors), a blue work shirt and baggy white painter's paints.

Wyland calls himself "the Tom Sawyer of painters" because he invites folks to help him paint his "Whaling Walls." Fans are crowding him for his autograph, forming lines at the Wyland tent to buy Wyland mugs, Wyland canvas bags, Wyland T-shirts that say "The Whaling Walls: East Coast Tour, Summer '93." Still more fans spill over to Wyland tent No. 2, where Wyland paintings sell for $700 to $20,000. And others gawk at the whale-adorned Wyland semi-tractor-trailor truck and two vans that carry Wyland's entourage of 14 volunteers, seven ladders and 10,000 gallons of paint.

"It's like being a rock star," Wyland says.

Wyland never draws a sketch or grid. "I just paint from my mind's eye," he says. "It's like an out-of-body experience: I paint the whale imagining it swimming right in front of me, and I also see it as if I'm standing across the street."

Occasionally, Wyland's customary humility will slip, and he acknowledges that his is an incredible feat.

"You couldn't paint in six weeks the murals I'm painting in six days," he says over breakfast before the dedication in New London. "Look at my forearms." (They're big.) "Holding the spray gun is like holding a quart of paint straight out for 14 hours. Feel the calluses on my thumb." (They're hard.) "Some days I limp out to the mural, but then someone says, 'It's so beautiful. I can't believe what you've done for us.' And it gives me energy."

Wyland invited sports artist Leroy Nieman to attend the New York "Whaling Wall" dedication (Nieman couldn't make it, though he's said to be a fan) and legendary fantasy/sci-fi illustrator Frank Frazetta of Stroudsburg, Pa., to the Philadelphia dedication.

Few artists since Christo have generated as many reams of newsprint and TV footage. That's not counting the one billion people, Wyland estimates, who will see his East Coast "Whaling Walls." Yesterday, in Washington, Wyland was scheduled to appear before Congress to testify about how concerned the children of our country are, based on his many conversations with them, about saving the whales.

Some, though, have said that Wyland is more interested in fame and money than oceans and whales.

Wyland scoffs at such accusations. "They're coming from people who aren't doing what I'm doing," he says. "I'm working 12 to 14 hours a day for four months for free - and I'm helping raise awareness of the environment and the plight of the world's oceans and whales. I'm doing something important. I'm making a difference."

Wyland gives the murals to each city free, he says, donating his time and the time of the 14 people who travel with him whom he pays so little, he says, that "they're really volunteers, too."

The average cost of $100,000 per wall is covered almost entirely by sponsors - MAB donated the more than 10,000 gallons of paint Wyland plans to use on the tour; National Van Lines donated the tractor-trailer truck and driver for four months.

But the "Whaling Walls," which Wyland has donated to the world since 1981

from California to Japan, have helped make the artist a multimillionaire. He has a home in Laguna Beach, Calif., an oceanfront manse with pool in Hawaii. His paintings sell from $1 (a postcard) to more than $175,000. He's asking $495,000 for the four-foot-wide round painting of whales at sunset that adorns his self-published book, The Art of Wyland, which was a bestseller in Hawaii. Without the profits from these other ventures, Wyland says, he could never afford to do the "Whaling Walls" for the good of the whales. He even underwrites some of the tour himself, though how much he won't say.

"I was inspired as a child by Jacques Cousteau's TV documentaries," Wyland says. "If one child is inspired by me to become another Cousteau, it will have been worth it." Indeed, Wyland says, after 12 years of painting ''Whaling Walls" - Philadelphia's will be his 42d - children who visited Wyland at his walls in the '80s have revisited the artist in the '90s as full- grown marine biologists who owed some of their interest to him.

As a boy, Wyland himself was an unlikely marine artist. Born far from the sea, in Detroit in 1956, Robert Wyland (as a whale artist, he legally changed his name to simply "Wyland" ) had a severe clubfoot that required 11 operations before the age of 7. He couldn't even step into the water.

Painting behemoths, however, came naturally, as Wyland began to experiment with "dinosaur murals" on headboards of his family's beds at age 3 and 4. His mother divorced when Wyland was young and raised four boys by herself on an autoworker's pay. At 14, visiting an aunt in California, Wyland says he was ''awestruck" by the Pacific Ocean and the sight of California gray whales migrating to Mexico.

At 21, after painting an Alps mural on a Dairy Queen in Michigan, Wyland moved to Laguna Beach and did his first "Whaling Wall." He also opened his art studio, if you could call a tiny $100-a-month shared flat an art studio. Today, Wyland says, the Wyland studio has grown to a multi-million-dollar-a- year enterprise with 18 galleries and several hundred employees.

It hasn't all gone smoothly, however. In May 1992, Wyland completed the world's biggest mural - Whaling Wall XXXIII (he names them like Super Bowls) in Long Beach, Calif., after weeks of controversy. The giant mural covers nearly three acres. It's 10 stories high and 1,280 feet in diameter, blanketing the entire surface of the Long Beach Convention Center, which folks used to think was a large white oil drum and now often mistake for an aquarium.

This didn't sit well with the convention center's minimalist architects, or with the local art commission, which wasn't consulted by the city council, or with the readers of the Long Beach Press-Telegram, who voted against the mural by a narrow margin.

"People said an art student in Long Beach could have done as well," Wyland says. "Well, it was there for 30 years - why didn't they?"

Even as Wyland was applying the paint, someone anonymously mailed the city council a brown envelope, which a councilwoman opened right during a meeting - to discover a 1981 Cheri magazine article featuring a bare-chested Wyland in an erotic photo layout with a nude model. After much discussion in city council on what the mayor termed "porn," the project was completed.

Wyland also got into trouble in 1991 with the historic village of Lahaina, Hawaii, when he painted a mural on a wall, a mural that he acknowledged the village would never have approved. "I'd been wanting to paint that wall for nine years," he told the Press-Telegram. But "there was no way I could have painted the wall in my lifetime. So I challenged their authority." Meaning he painted the wall under cover of darkness one night. The village forced him to cover it over. Hundreds of Maui residents, he says, supported him. "It was just the old regime that was against it."

Similarly, Wyland aches to paint "a big ugly cement wall that you see as you approach the National Aquarium in Baltimore." Over breakfast on Monday before the "Whaling Wall" dedication here, Wyland fumed that "everybody" was in favor of the Baltimore wall - everybody but the director of the aquarium. "It has to happen," he said, petulantly. "It has to."

Might the whale artist who won't grow up or give up until he's painted 100 ''Whaling Walls" - his goal by the year 2011 - sneak out and paint the National Aquarium in the middle of the night?

"I just might have to," he says.

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